Jan 30 2013

Joy: Searching for a sustainable joy

Published by at 10:01 pm under Minister's Musings

First, a confession:

I don’t like the holidays that insist I must feel a certain way in order to participate. There’s nothing like the “cheer,” “goodwill,” and “joy to the world” of the December holidays to put me in touch with all that’s sad, lonely, or just plain wrong in my life and in the world.

Does this happen to you, too?

It’s partly that stubborn independent streak that marks most of us Unitarian Universalists. I don’t want someone else telling me how to feel or think.

But even more, it’s my distaste for the commercialized messages of this season. “Joy” has been coopted in service of consumerism. “Buy more!” “Get more!” the ads shout, with the promise that such purchasing will bring us, and our loved ones, happiness and goodwill.

Well, I’m not buying it. That’s not the real deal when it comes to joy.

We take up the theme of Joy this December not because it is blaring from piped-in music all around us. Rather, it’s because we human beings are built to experience authentic joy. Joy that can arise in all circumstances, even the most grim. Joy that may arrive as a peak experience but as an everyday gift. Joy that can be ours at any age—even though it may seem all too elusive right now.

In Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich reports that in the past thirty years, psychology journals have published some forty-five thousand articles on depression—“but only four hundred on joy.” In a way, this makes sense. Psychology is looking for ways to cure what ails us. It analyzes what’s wrong in order to help fix it.

But we need to understand joy at least as much as we understand depression—especially if we are to discover a sustainable joy.

By “sustainable joy,” I mean that we can develop a way of living that keeps us open to the experience of joy—every day and throughout the year. Such joy may lie in the simplest things. Nature, family, friends, humor, gardening, grandchildren, community, and music are on your lists (see “In Our Own Voices” in this issue).

And then there’s the more transcendent form of joy—that “deep, abiding sense of connection, awe in the face of the numinous, an expression of the deepest sort of love and lovingkindness,” as one of you has put it. Can we live in such a way that even this transcendent joy will be ours more often? Our Transcendentalist religious ancestors, like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Margaret Fuller, learned to find the numinous in the material world around them. Just this week I caught a whiff of the universal in a single rose, blooming in December, right outside our own church’s front doors.

In Dr. Stuart Brown’s book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Brown lists how play helps us develop: it helps us adapt to change; it teaches us to be innovative and collaborative. But most of all, “it allows us to express our joy and connect most deeply with the best in ourselves, and in others.”

What can our own sense of play teach us about joy? Try these questions:

  • What toy do you remember best from your childhood? (question asked of a congregant’s 90-year-old father)
  • What brought you joy as a child?
  • What kinds of play did you like best—solitary or communal? Quiet or rambunctious? Indoors or outdoors?

No matter how lonely or sad your childhood may have been, at some point you found a source of joy; otherwise, you most likely would not be reading this today. How can we reconnect with our sources of play and joy—even in the smallest ways—to bring liveliness and meaning back into our days? These are the kinds of questions we will ask together this month.

Listen: There’s nothing “bah, humbug” about rejecting the commercialized joy that gets trumpeted all around us at this time of year. Instead, we have a glorious project this season: the search for a sustainable joy. Let us call on all our resources, all our experiences, all our wisdom, and let shine all that we can. Come on: let’s play!


With love and hope,


Rev. Nancy

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